Social Movements and Social Policy: the Bolivian Renta Dignidad


The impact of popular mobilization and social movements against the advance of neoliberal policies has been well documented and theorized. Their concrete impact on the process of social policy reform in the post-neoliberal era is still under debate, however. This article theorizes about the conditions linking disparate new movements to each other and to old, class-based social movements in the defense of a concrete policy reform, Bolivia’s non-contributory pension, the Renta Dignidad. Using a case study research design built on content analysis of newspaper coverage, we identify the necessary, though not sufficient, conditions facilitating alignment of interests and coordinated mobilization—a context of adversity (as confronting a highly mobilized opposition) and the universalistic characteristics of the policy. Under those conditions, social movements allied with Bolivia’s governing Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) were critical in the passage of Renta Dignidad by counterbalancing the pressure from a highly mobilized opposition backed by strong economic elites.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    New movements also make material demands. Old movements, in turn, cannot be reduced to solely material dimensions; for example, they combine class struggles with cross-class aspects of identity. See Eckstein and Wickham-Crowley (2002).

  2. 2.

    Neoliberal reforms, moreover, were resisted by popular sector movements, such as indigenous movements in Bolivia, landless rural workers in Brazil, rural social movements in Costa Rica and Peru, the unemployed in Argentina, and women’s organizations (as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and the Bartolina Sisa women farmers’ organization in Bolivia), among many others (Ondetti 2008; Edelman 1999; Arce 2008; Garay 2010; Silva 2009).

  3. 3.

    See Niedzwiecki (2015) for an exception.

  4. 4.

    Tenorio (2014) and Niedzwiecki (2015) are partial exceptions by analyzing the effect of organized labor on aggregate social spending in Latin America.

  5. 5.

    We would expect El Deber to under-report pro-government mobilizations. That newspaper is known for its strong connections to economic elites and business interests in the Santa Cruz region, its alignment with regionalist parties and autonomy movements, and its antagonistic position against the central government.

  6. 6.

    We do not include the number of participants in each mobilization because this information is not systematic across the newspapers. However, we do include the number of people who participated in the event in the text if that information is available.

  7. 7.

    Our focus is neither on the process through which the issue enters the legislative agenda nor on the position of individual legislators. We focus on the dynamics of social mobilization in the streets, which affected the design, passing, and implementation of the policy.

  8. 8.

    For a description of indigenous territories in Bolivia, see Hooghe et al. (forthcoming).


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We would like to especially thank Evelyne Huber for her constant guidance and very helpful comments on earlier versions of this article. John D. Stephens, Camila Arza, and the editors and two anonymous reviewers of SCID also provided excellent feedback. María Florencia Bergez compiled the newspaper articles used in this paper.

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Correspondence to Sara Niedzwiecki.

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Santiago Anria and Sara Niedzwiecki are equal contributors to this article.

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Anria, S., Niedzwiecki, S. Social Movements and Social Policy: the Bolivian Renta Dignidad. St Comp Int Dev 51, 308–327 (2016).

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  • Social policy
  • Social movements
  • Latin America
  • Bolivia